By Sophie Stuber

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is approving the construction of 5G towers on what could be sacred Indigenous lands without tribal consent, VICE News has found.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation works on projects in 12 states across the midwest and southern U.S., and is expected to inspect proposals for every 5G tower that goes up in those states. On average, it receives 150 small cell tower projects per month. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, it has received 1,700 requests.

We just have no capacity to respond,” RaeLynn Butler, manager of theMuscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department in Oklahoma, told VICE News.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many tribal offices are closed or are working at reduced capacity. Many officers are working remotely, and some areas lack the connectivity for people to work effectively.

“It’s ironic that we have people reviewing cell phone towers who don’t even have internet access at home,” Butler said.

According to Section 106 of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, every federal agency must consider the impacts of “its actions” on historic sites for new construction projects. On Indigenous land, this includes consulting with the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. If the tribe does not respond to a consultation request within 30 days, the company can continue with the project.

A spokesperson from CTIA, a trade association that represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, said its member companies “are committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure timely review of new infrastructure.

“The FCC has adopted rules that balance the goals of providing for tribal review while enabling expeditious buildout of next-generation wireless services,” Jilane Rodgers Petrie, director of public affairs, wrote in an email.

The FCC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Matt Peterson, vice president of communications at American Tower, wrote: “We are not aware at this time of any situation regarding one of our towers where we moved forward without hearing from the THPO office.”

In the three years that Joshua Mann has worked at Eastern Shoshone Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Wyoming, he has been asked to consult on 17,000 projects on Indigenous lands.

“We get a lot of conflict. It’s overwhelming with the towers. The race to 5G right now, it’s crazy,” Mann said.

The FCC claims that excavations for 5G infrastructure don’t affect historic sites, but the preservation offices say these determinations are made without the presence of experts or archeologists from local Indigenous communities.

In West Virginia, the FCC first proposed a “broadband expressway project” in 2018 to build 150 new 5G towers across one of the ancestral homelands of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. Even though the band refused to sign the proposal, the project was reupped this year and is going ahead anyway.

“They pretty much told us that they were going to put these towers in. They didn’t care if we had historical properties there,” said Whitney Warrior, the current preservation office director for the United Keetoowah Band.

“It’s very clear that they have no intention of being educated in tribal sensitivity at all.”

During the pandemic, consultation requests have increased in some areas.

In July, the FCC tried to pass two new amendments to reduce tribal consultations. One of the amendments would exempt Section 106 consultationsfor companies expanding on an existing tower of less than 30 feet.

“Especially now with the pandemic (the FCC) is doing so much work knowing that tribes are vulnerable and hardly in the office,” said Sheila Bird, the former preservation officer for the United Keetowah Band.

“Our first and foremost concern is to not disturb unmarked graves,” said Bird, who’s now a consultant at Kituwah Nighthawk Consulting.

Protecting ancestral homelands is essential in preserving history, culture, and traditions for future generations.

“Once all of that’s gone it’s gone forever,” Warrior said. “If we don’t protect our tribal legacy, then the loss will be a total genocide of an entire race of Indian people.”

Many Indigenous communities also say they have not been compensated for consultations they have conducted.

“They haven’t paid in probably two years,” said Karen Pritchett, Tower Construction Notification System coordinator for the United Keetoowah Band.

Without proper funding, tribes cannot review projects in a timely manner. “When you have an unfunded mandate, it puts tribes in a harder position to reach the expectations of industry,” Butler said.

With the announcement that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will step down in January, there is hope that there will be more collaboration with local Indigenous tribes.

“The reality is that we need these towers to have better communications and to survive the pandemic. But we need to work together better,” Butler said. “We’re constantly seen as a barrier. It’s frustrating to know that with everything that we have done, the thousands of towers and projects we have reviewed, that it’s still not enough.”

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New Zealand gives Mount Taranaki same legal rights as a person

The sacred mountain in the North Island is the third geographic feature in the country to be granted a ‘legal personality’

Mount Taranaki in New Zealand is to be granted the same legal rights as a person, becoming the third geographic feature in the country to be granted a “legal personality”.

Eight local Māori tribes and the government will share guardianship of the sacred mountain on the west coast of the North Island, in a long-awaited acknowledgement of the indigenous people’s relationship to the mountain, who view it as an ancestor and whanau, or family member.

The new status of the mountain means if someone abuses or harms it, it is the same legally as harming the tribe.

In the record of understanding signed this week, Mount Taranaki will become “a legal personality, in its own right”, said the minister for treaty negotiations, Andrew Little, gaining similar rights to the Whanganui river, which was granted legal personhood earlier this year.

Little said the agreement offered the best possible protection for the landmark, which is becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction after Lonely Planet named the Taranaki region the second best place to visit in the world last year.

“As a New Plymouth local I grew up under the gaze of the maunga [mountain] so I’m particularly pleased with the respect accorded to local tangata whenua [local people] and the legal protection and personality given to the mountain,” Little said.

“Today’s agreements are a major milestone in acknowledging the grievances and hurt from the past as the Taranaki iwi experienced some of the worst examples of Crown behaviour in the 19th century.”

As part of the agreement the New Zealand government will apologise to local Māori for historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi against the mountain, although local tribes will receive no financial or commercial redress.

“It [Mt Taranaki] provides that sense of place, social association and identity,” he said.

Gerrard Albert, who negotiated legal personhood for the Whanganui river earlier this year after a 140-year fight, said all Māori tribes regarded themselves as part of the universe, at one with and equal to the mountains, the rivers and the seas.

The new laws being introduced honoured and reflected their world view, Albert said, and were setting a precedent for other Māori tribes in New Zealand to follow in Whanganui and Mt Taranaki’s footsteps.

“We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe,” said Albert. “And therefore, rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it.”

Mount Taranaki is 120,000 years old and is the country’s most perfectly formed dormant volcano, last erupting in 1775. It is also thought to be New Zealand’s most frequently climbed mountain.

 This article was amended on 22 December 2017. An earlier version said Mount Taranaki was on the east coast of North Island. It is on the island’s west coast.